Sunday, September 16, 2012

Our September Book: The Devil and Mr. Casement by Jordan Goodman

This month, we are reading The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness by Jordan Goodman. Roger Casement is a fascinating historical figure who we have encountered before (in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost and Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil) who is also the subject of Mario Vargas Llhosa's most recent novel, The Dream of the Celt. It's a wonder there hasn't been a biopic starring, say, Daniel Day-Lewis about him, though there is really too much drama for just one film, just as there is too much to cover in one book. Although this book concentrates on Casement's investigations of the exploitation of indigenous peoples by rubber barons in the Amazon, there are a couple of enjoyable ways to get a thumbnail summary of his entire life. One is to listen to the ballad below, but if you have a little more time you can listen to the radio drama The Dreaming of Roger Casement (download via iTunes) from RTE (Radio Ireland).

I wish I could provide a little more background on Jordan Goodman or an interview about his book but I have hit a dead end on that front. There are still a few resources on the internet to supplement our reading, however. You can actually page through Walter Hardenburg's 1913 report "The Putumayo, the devil's paradise; travels in the Peruvian Amazon region and an account of the atrocities committed upon the Indians therein."  Here's a very brief film clip of Casement and a newsreel about his state funeral in Ireland almost fifty years after his death.  RTE also has a program in which a panel speculates "What if Roger Casement had not kept a diary?" (download via iTunes). An Independent 2011 news story of interest, "The Mystery of the Missing Amazonian Rubber Slaves" traces the fates of Omarino and Ricudo, the two Indians Casement brought back to England,
"We are sent far, far into the forest to get rubber, and if we do not get it, or if we do not get it quickly enough, we are shot," Omarino told the Daily News, a popular national newspaper founded and edited by Charles Dickens. "London is very wonderful, but the great river and the forest, where the birds fly, is more beautiful. One day we shall go back."
The men did make it back to South America in the end, but the last known record of their whereabouts shows them separated from their homes by thousands of miles of thick rainforest.
I tend to think of the movement for corporate responsibility in human rights as a relatively new development so this book was very instructive in showing that human rights activists have been seeking justice, not just from governments, but from businesses for more than a hundred years. Unfortunately, the descendants of the Putamayo Indians are still facing environmental threats brought on by corporate exploitation of their resources. This Survival International article compares the Roger Casement story to the current illegal trade in mahogany, which we read about in Ted Conover's The Routes of Man. Jordan Goodman notes the exploitation of the Putumayo by the oil and gas industry.  You can learn more about the current struggle by watching the documentary, Crude  or check out Amnesty International's corporate accountability program, their specific work on Chevron in Ecuador, a success story for indigenous rights in Peru, and an action you can take here.
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